Fly fishing advice from the 17th century still holds up today
This blog post is a contribution by my friend and fellow NVATU member, Owen Williams. It is a summarized version of a paper he presented at the Renaissance Society of America held in Dublin in March 2022. The original title of his paper is “Piscatorial Experiments and Riparian Receipts: The Pseudoscience of Early Modern Angling”.
In seventeenth-century England, angling was described as a delightful art, full of secrets; a contemplative man’s recreation; compared favorably to dice, drink, hawking, hunting, and smoking; a skill developed only with long experience, careful observation, and experimentation; suitable for honest men (and women); and even a cure for melancholy. At the heart of most of these descriptions is the idea of a community of anglers who share their knowledge about what has worked and what has not as they fish together and pool their experience to meet the challenge of a new river, a new species, or just a new day on the water.
Before that most famous “Brother of the Angle” – Isaak Walton – published The Compleat Angler in 1653, numerous shorter tracts had been penned by a vibrant network of anglers fishing the chalk streams of Berkshire, Wiltshire, Hampshire, and Dorset, including the River Avon associated with another, more famous, writer. One of these, The Secrets of Angling by John Dennys, was the first printed English poem devoted to fishing. It was published posthumously in 1613. Walton adapted and misattributed six stanzas of this “piscatory eclogue” for posterity.
Where this book becomes interesting to modern anglers is through the notes added by William Lawson to the second edition, which sustained the poem through four editions in as many decades until Issak Walton’s Compleat Angler came on the scene.
With his annotations, Lawson sometimes directly contradicts the poem’s lyrical claims. At other times, he overwhelms the original text. In the section discussing how one fishes “For the Chub and Trout,” Lawson extols the trout’s virtues at length:
The Trout makes the Angler most gentlemanly, and readiest sport of all other fishes: If you angle with a made [i.e., artificial] fly, and a Line twice your rods length or more (in a plaine water without wood) of three haires [that is, three braided horse hairs], in a darke windy day from mid afternoon, and have learned the cast of the Flie, your Flie must counterfeit the May Flie, which is bred of the Cod-bait, and is called the water-flie [this seems to be a caddis]: you must change his colour every Moneth, beginning with a darke white, and so grow to a yellow, the forme cannot so well be put on a paper, as it may be taught by sight; yet it will be like this forme:
The head is of black silk or haire, the wings of a feather of a Mallart, Teele, or pickled Henwing. The body of Crewell [worsted yarn] according to the Moneth for colour, and run about with a black haire: all fastned at the taile, with the thread that fastned the hooke. You must fish in; or hard by the stream, and have a quick hand, and a ready eye, and a nimble Rod, strike with him, or you lose him. If the winde be rough, and trouble the crust of the water, he will take it in the plaine deeps, and then, and there commonly the greatest will rise. When you have hookt him, give him leave, keeping your Line straight, and hold him from Roots, and he will tire himself. This is the chiefe pleasure of Angling.
While the language seems old-fashioned, most of us would agree that making a perfect cast with a dry fly we have tied to hook a large rising trout that we then skillfully play is still one of “the chiefe pleasure(s) of Angling.” Lawson has all the elements of a more experienced angler or guide giving advice to an angler on the fly-fishing path today. After describing the season and the setting, he discusses fly pattern and color (even providing the fly recipe), leader thickness, presentation, and tips for fighting the trout. With his description of the setting and season, and specifically his tracking the hatches of the insect that he is imitating, Lawson seems to understand the effects that countless variables play on the grand experiment of angling. And it’s wonderful to see that “keeping your Line straight,” or constant contact with the fly, was already common advice in 1620.
Decades before The Compleat Angler, William Lawson’s annotations on The Secrets of Angling poem provided a how-to manual that recorded the experience and experimentation of an accomplished angler who was willing to share his knowledge. It, and the countless books it inspired, helped create a community of practitioners that continues to welcome new members today.
I look forward to a second contribution from Owen Williams that will examine the twelve ‘virtues’ that make an angler successful.